The assassinated Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero is at the final milestone of a tortuous road to sainthood with his beatification by the Roman Catholic Church on Saturday. The occasion has brought celebrations of the highest order in his native El Salvador. But the event calls for much wider rejoicing — for it reveals a victory over malign influences within the church and provides further evidence of the radical nature of the revolution Pope Francis is forging in Rome.
Archbishop Romero was shot and killed at the altar as he celebrated Mass in San Salvador in 1980. His assassin was from one of the death squads propping up an unholy alliance among rich landowners, the army and sections of the Catholic Church as the country moved toward civil war. The archbishop’s crime was to order soldiers to stop killing innocent civilians. The far-right elite saw him as an apologist for Marxist revolution — a defamation that highly placed individuals in the Vatican nurtured for three decades, and that Pope Francis has now finally squelched.
The chief concern of these critics was that his canonization would be an effective endorsement of liberation theology, which they feared would allow Communism to infiltrate Latin America. This was a willful caricature of the movement that maintained that the Gospels carried a “preferential option for the poor” and insisted that the church had a duty to work for the social and economic liberation of the downtrodden as well as their spiritual well-being. This misrepresentation reached its nadir in the gross calumnies perpetrated about the archbishop, both during his life and in the years since his death.
The oligarchy in El Salvador had hoped that Msgr. Romero would be a compliant prelate when he became archbishop of San Salvador. His background was conservative and his spirituality drew on that of Opus Dei, a deeply traditional group of priests and lay-people. But he became outraged by the growing violence against the poor and those who spoke up for them.
Within weeks of his installation one of his priests — a close friend, the Rev. Rutilio Grande — was murdered for supporting peasants campaigning for land reform and better wages. A succession of priests were killed thereafter, though by 1979 they were only a small proportion of the 3,000 people reportedly being murdered every month. When a reporter asked him what he did as archbishop, he replied: “I pick up bodies.”
As the violence worsened, Archbishop Romero became more outspoken in his nationally broadcast sermons, condemning the oppression and telling the people that God was with them.
Though Archbishop Romero was no liberation theoretician, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the chief advocate for his sainthood, has called him “a martyr of the church of the Second Vatican Council” because his decision to “live with the poor and defend them from oppression” flowed directly from the documents of Vatican II.
Nor was he a Marxist. In a 1978 sermon, he said: “A Marxist church would be not only self-destructive but senseless” because “Marxist materialism destroys the church’s transcendent meaning.”
But this was a world in which anyone who raised his voice for justice was branded a Communist.
El Salvador’s social, military and ecclesiastical elites were deeply unhappy with the archbishop. The 14 families who controlled the economy and who made big donations to the church sent a constant stream of complaints to Rome. They accused Archbishop Romero of meddling in politics, sanctioning terrorism and abandoning the church’s spiritual mission to save souls. Four bishops, alarmed that the archbishop was questioning their ties to the oligarchy, began to speak out virulently against him.
Archbishop Romero’s copious diaries give the lie to all their claims. So did the dossier he gave to Pope Paul VI in a private audience that ended with the pope urging him: “Courage! Take heart. You are the one in charge.”
Yet Archbishop Romero got a very different message when he was summoned to Rome by Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, head of the Congregation of Bishops. The cardinal said he had had a quite unprecedented volume of complaints regarding Archbishop Romero. The charge sheet was full of wild allegations and pernicious distortions, but Archbishop Romero was distressed by the fact that the cardinal clearly believed them. Again he went to the pope, who again urged him to “proceed with courage.”
But the next pope, John Paul II, had little knowledge of Central America and relied on the advice of curial officials hostile to the archbishop. Cardinal Baggio sent a Vatican inspector to El Salvador who recommended that he be stripped of his duties. Archbishop Romero appealed to John Paul, who told his critics to moderate their attitude toward the besieged prelate.
After his murder, his enemies began three decades of maneuvering to prevent him being officially declared a saint. A succession of blocking tactics was deployed, led by the man who had been given the role of championing Archbishop Romero’s cause, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, a Colombian deeply opposed to liberation theology. Years passed while Vatican officials scrutinized Archbishop Romero’s writings for doctrinal errors. When they found none, critics shifted to arguing that he was not killed for his faith but for his ancillary “political statements.”
Supporters of Archbishop Romero blamed conservative popes who were antagonistic to liberation theology, but that is unfair. In 1997, John Paul II bestowed upon Archbishop Romero the title of Servant of God and in 2003 told a group of Salvadoran bishops that he was a martyr. In 2007 Benedict XVI called him “a man of great Christian virtue.” He added: “That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt.” (This last sentence was strangely cut from the interview transcript placed on the Vatican website.) Just a month before he resigned, Pope Benedict gave orders that Archbishop Romero’s canonization process should be unblocked.
It was the arrival of Pope Francis — who promptly engineered a rapprochement between the Vatican and liberation theology — that finally brought action. Archbishop Romero’s cause, he told reporters, had been “blocked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ‘for prudence.”’ But he added, “for me Romero is a man of God.”
Following that lead, the appropriate body of theologians universally declared that Archbishop Romero had not been killed for political reasons but had indeed died because of odium fidei — hatred of the faith. Francis promptly officially declared him a martyr, and the path to sainthood was opened.
For Francis this action was self-evident. He had said on his second full day as pope that he wanted “a poor church for the poor.” And he had written in his papal manifesto, Evangelii Gaudium: “We have to state, without mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor.”
The beatification of Oscar Romero is therefore a cause for double rejoicing. It honors a man whose love for justice and focus on the poor was a direct manifestation of his faith. But it also reveals that with the arrival of Pope Francis some of the dark forces that lurked inside the Vatican in recent decades have at last been vanquished.
Paul Vallely is a visiting professor in public ethics at the University of Chester and is the author of the forthcoming biography, Pope Francis: The Struggle for the Soul of Catholicism.